How much does it really cost (the planet) to make a penny? Pennies are often found, forgotten on the sidewalk. (Thinkstock)
How much does it really cost (the planet) to make a penny?
Lexile

Ah, the lowly penny, the one-cent coin graced by Lincoln's face. It often is fountain fodder and city litter. Kids love to fill their piggy banks with them. Untold billions are in collection jars and other forgotten places.
 
Most people know that pennies cost the government more to make than they're worth. They may not know that making all those pennies has a serious environmental impact.
 
With that in mind, is it possible to make the penny greener?
 
Christina Cogdell is an associate professor of design. She teaches at the University of California Davis. She asks her students to parse out each material comprising a particular product. Two years ago, three of her students chose the penny.
 
Christine Knobel, Nicole Tan and Darin Reyes spent a semester analyzing the information they could find to make an assessment of the penny's ecological footprint. Their conclusion?  The true cost of making a penny adds up to much more than 1.43 cents.
 
The Mint itself has tried to find out if making coins out of different metals might make them cheaper to produce. But it concluded, that for the penny, "there are no alternative metal compositions that reduce the manufacturing unit cost of the penny below its face value." This is according to a 2014 report to Congress.
 
Each Mint facility conducts monthly environmental compliance audits. Each Mint aims to reduce direct emissions by 33 percent by 2020. The Denver Mint is already 100 percent wind-powered. And the stamping presses now have a sleep mode to reduce power consumption when not in use.  
 
Between weak economic demand and environmental impacts, nearly a dozen countries have concluded that the penny's not worth it. Canada abolished its penny in 2012, joining countries including Australia, Brazil, Finland, New Zealand, Norway and Israel.
 
The Mint has made pennies of 98.5 percent zinc and 2.5 percent copper since 1982.
 
Jarden Zinc Products is the sole company that produces penny blanks for the U.S. Mint to stamp into finished coins. The company declined to comment on any aspect of its production or the sourcing of their metal other than to say it is "all completely recyclable." This is according to Mark Blizard, the company's vice president of coinage sales. A company product sheet states the zinc is "mined, processed and formed in America."  It described the zinc as coming from Tennessee mines owned and managed by Nyrstar. Yet Nyrstar company representatives assert that Jarden is not one of their clients and has no direct connection with the penny-making process.
 
Adding to the confusion, the Mint itself reported in 2014 that the zinc comes from Canada.
 
Pennies made up 56 percent of the Mint's production run last year.
 
In 2014, the Mint produced 8.15 billion one-cent coins. That's 22,450 tons of pennies. It equates to 21,888 tons of zinc and 562 tons of copper. The same year, 651 tons of copper was used to make "consumer products." That means 86 percent of the copper destined for consumer products was used just for pennies. For zinc, the percentage is smaller. It is 2 percent of the 1.1 million tons of refined zinc consumed in 2014.
 
Getting all that ore out of the ground is costly. The mining cost includes carbon dioxide emissions, pollutants and power consumed. A 2009 analysis found that Western copper mines use 35.7 gigajoules of energy per ton of copper produced. Zinc and lead mines are fairly more efficient. They use 6.6 to 6.8 gigajoules of energy per ton.
 
Copper mines, located mostly in Arizona, tend to be of the open-pit variety. This allows more substances to be released. Zinc mines can be open or closed.
 
Here's what zinc must go through before it is pure enough to be lacquered with copper and punched into a coin. Mining involves blasting and chipping zinc-containing sphalerite ores away from the surrounding limestone, then crushing and processing the ores in chemical baths that separate the zinc from other minerals. At the smelter, raw zinc is roasted to remove sulfides, then sent through a leaching and purification process.
 
The main byproducts of this process include sulfuric acid and sulfur dioxide. Mercury is another impurity removed during this process.
 
After being rolled out to the proper thickness, coins are stamped out into circles called planchets. Those are polished and then electroplated with pure copper. Shipped to the U.S. Mint in either Denver or Philadelphia, die presses stamp Abraham Lincoln's likeness and a federal shield onto either side of the coin. The presses use 35 tons of force. Then the coins are trucked to one of 12 Federal Reserve banks.
 
The United States recycled 71.8 million tons of metal in 2013. But not a single penny made today is recycled, at least by the Mint. Nor are any coins at the moment.
 
Pennies have an estimated 25-year life span. People do try to "recycle" them. Coinstar is the company known for its green-and-white coin-collecting kiosks. Coinstar processed more than 18.5 billion pennies in 2015. All are eventually deposited with banks, said Susan Johnston. She is a representative of the company.
 
So if the penny can't be made greener, why not get rid of it entirely?
 
Former Arizona congressman Jim Kolbe introduced three bills from 1989 to 2006. He wanted to try and get the government to ditch its smallest denomination.
 
But, plenty of people are fine with the penny. For some, its chief value is sentimental. Others worry that customers will suffer if prices get rounded up rather than down.
 
There's one group that really wants to keep the penny around. That is Jarden Zinc Products. Their current contract with the Mint is valued at $425 million. The figure is according to Mint spokesman Michael White.
 
For Knobel, the answer seems clear. Economically as well as environmentally, it makes sense to get rid of the penny.
 
"The penny isn't needed," she said. "If the Mint is trying to reduce energy, why not reduce it by a whole coin?"

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CRITICAL THINKING QUESTION
Why does the U.S. continue to mint pennies?
Write your answers in the comments section below


COMMENTS (50)
  • kayleeu-2-bar
    6/07/2016 - 08:40 p.m.

    The U.S. continues to mint pennies because they have sentimental value to the people of america. Many Americans might not care if the penny is destroyed but for "some, its chief value is sentimental," so they do not want to get rid of the penny. Also "others worry that customers will suffer if prices get rounded up rather than down." With the penny taken away this would mean that that prices would be rounded for example to $0.99 to $1.00 or rounded down to $0.95.

    My opinion on this article is that I had no idea how many countries do not use pennies anymore.

  • simonak-3-bar
    6/08/2016 - 09:17 a.m.

    The U.S. continues to mint coins because people still use them and they have sentimental value to many Americans. In the passage, the author mentions,"But, plenty of people are fine with the penny. For some, its chief value is sentimental." This means that many people are not bothered by the penny, and also they have sentimental values for some. With this in mind, it is hard for the government to take away something that could be very important to a lot of people.

    My opinion on this article is that I had heard about people trying to get rid of the penny before, so the new information is also interesting to me.

  • williamb-4-bar
    6/08/2016 - 11:37 a.m.

    The United States continues to use pennies because when you get change back you are most likely to get pennies. plus the penny is kinda like a treasure when ever you find one and if its heads up all day long you will have goodluck.

  • madelinew-1-bar
    6/09/2016 - 11:59 a.m.

    The US has not gotten rid of the penny yet because it would cause a change in item costs, more likely raising prices than dropping them. This could cause an upset for some people.
    I thought this article was interesting. If the US decides to get rid of the penny, then a lot of things could change.

  • william1108-yyca
    6/09/2016 - 12:02 p.m.

    The U.S continues to make pennies because as stated in the article, people are fine with having the penny, pennies may have sentimental value to many, and the loss of the penny may hurt the economy. On the other hand some want to get rid of the penny because it makes no sense to produce 1 cent pennies if they cost about 1.43 cents to make. Also the penny hurts the environment. I found this article useful because now I know what side I'm on with keeping the penny or leaving it, and I'm on leaving it.

  • maxwellt-2-bar
    6/09/2016 - 12:42 p.m.

    The U.S. continues to mint pennies because of the penny's supporters, who argue that "For some, its chief value is sentimental. Others worry that customers will suffer if prices get rounded up rather than down". The supporters have enough influence on society to prevent the elimination of the penny. This article interested me because I debated this topic in Debate in seventh grade. Also, the zinc comes from Canada, and so did I!

  • calis-3-bar
    6/09/2016 - 01:23 p.m.

    Some people want the US to continue to mint pennies, saying "But, plenty of people are fine with the penny. For some, its chief value is sentimental. Others worry that customers will suffer if prices get rounded up rather than down." People like pennies and it has meaning to them, because it has to do with America's history. They also worry that without a penny, prices for everything will go up, including small taxes on items. So, the US will keep minting pennies, at least for now. I liked this article. Personally, I think that pennies are good, even if they are expensive to make. Otherwise taxes on small items would be very unfair, and the penny is a part of America's history.

  • olgan-4-bar
    6/09/2016 - 02:07 p.m.

    The U.S. continues to mint pennies because some people collect and use them. The article states "But, plenty of people are fine with the penny. For some, its chief value is sentimental." This means that many people have no issue with the penny and that others are even attached to it. If the penny would be taken away, many people would be outraged and would disagree. In my opinion, I've never heard of people trying to get rid of the penny. I think those people should be worrying about more important issues.

  • matthewp-6-bar
    6/09/2016 - 03:23 p.m.

    The United states continues to mint pennies even though they cost more to make than how much they are worth and they hurt the environment. The reason the U.S continues making them is because if pennies went away prices on things might round up and some people feel the penny is sentimental. This is shown in the article by,"For some, its chief value is sentimental. Others worry that customers will suffer if prices get rounded up rather than down." My opinion about this article is that it was not interesting because I knew the information already.

  • stellas-6-bar
    6/09/2016 - 03:26 p.m.

    The United States continues to mint pennies because of their sentimental value. Pennies "help" prices stay down. If there were no pennies, prices would be rounded like from $2.99 to $3.00. This article is interesting because I think we underestimate pennies and what they are worth.

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